Missing Middle Housing

Thinking Big and Building Small to Respond to Today’s Housing Crisis

By Daniel Parolek

Reviewed by Richard K. Rein

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. Other times a thousand words can paint a picture. Both ways work in this timely new book, Missing Middle Housing.

The picture is actually a diagram showing detached single family homes on the one side, and bulky mid-rise apartment buildings on the other. For many towns these are the two principal housing choices. For apartment dwellers the recurring question is when or if they can make the leap to a single family (and often very expensive) house. In between those two choices author and architect Daniel Parolek shows examples of “missing middle housing:” duplexes, triplexes, multiplexes, courtyard apartments, bungalow courts, townhouses, and live/work units.

The word portrait is the preface, where Parolek shows how his path to missing middle housing began in Columbus, Nebraska, an old-fashioned, walkable town of 18,000. As a kid Parolek could visit his great-grandmother in her 600-square foot apartment carved out of a classic Victorian duplex. A senior year design studio at the Notre Dame School of Architecture opened his eyes to the multiple building and housing types already existing into many neighborhoods. After earning a masters in urban design at Berkeley, he formed his own firm, Opticos Design. The first major project for the Berkeley-based firm was a master plan for the nearby community of Isla Vista. Townspeople were feeling overwhelmed by poorly designed, high density apartment buildings. A citizens advisory group told Parolek’s firm that the community couldn’t accept any future developments with a density of more than 18 units per acre.

What would be acceptable? Parolek took townspeople on a walking tour of Santa Barbara, which has a wide range of missing middle housing types. The one site loved by everyone in the group was a two-story, C-shaped Spanish Revival courtyard building. They all agreed it was the kind of housing that zoning should permit. Then Parolek calculated the density — almost 45 units per acre. Parolek then was able to shift the conversation away from abstract numbers to more visible aspects of form and building type.

Density is one objection neighbors may raise at the mention of missing middle housing. “Density- and use-based planning and zoning were established to separate uses and create suburban environments.” The old codes make it difficult or impossible to create “walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods similar to the ones that formed organically before zoning was commonplace,” Parolek writes. Density-based policy “is too blunt of an instrument to effectively regulate for 21st-century housing needs.”

The book is timely. As the publisher’s press release notes, the Covid-19 pandemic has “reignited” the debate over density. NIMBY types have argued that the pandemic has hit densely populated cities harder than suburban enclaves. Those numbers are evening out as the virus spreads, and a closer examination of outbreaks in urban areas shows that over-crowded housing might correlate more closely to the spread of the disease. That’s another reason to consider filling in the missing middle.

For me the book is timely in another way. Officials in my hometown hope to develop 80 units of affordable units and as many as 80 more market rate units on a 3.2-acre site currently dominated by a little-used parking lot. A lot of people in town enthusiastically favor a mixed rate development in part because they believe it would foster a more equitable neighborhood, but also because it addresses the missing middle housing, and would do so on an eminently walkable site.

Of course, some neighbors worry about the density. They cite concerns about shadows cast by the new development, how much open space will be retained, pedestrian safety, and the relationship of the new housing to the neighbors across the street and at either end. If these problems are evident with 80 units, or about 25 units per acre, they must be twice as bad on a site with 160 units, or 50 per acre. Who would want to live next door to 50 units per acre?

As Parolek did in Isla Vista, I gave myself a walking tour of neighborhoods bordering the proposed housing. A few blocks away I discovered an old Masonic Temple recently converted into a 10-unit apartment house. It fits in naturally with its single family neighbors. Density: 58 units per acre. A few blocks in the other direction I found a 39-unit apartment house in another mostly single-family neighborhood. I had never paid attention to it before. Density: 50 units per acre. Then I literally looked out my window. Next door to my house is a side-by-side, three story Victorian style multiplex – three units on each side and one tucked away in the back: Seven units on just under .14 acre, or 50 units per acre. Who would want to live next door to 50 units per acre? I have done just that for a long time.

“Form and building type” are more important factors than density in determining whether a building fits into a neighborhood, Parolek writes. To put it another way, in terms of the affordable and market rate housing proposed in my hometown, the deleterious effects feared by some neighbors could happen just as easily with an 80-unit development as they could with 160 units.

Missing middle housing is not just some theoretical possibility. Parolek presents case studies of eight projects, with before and after photographs, plot plans, and summaries of unit sizes, lot areas, parking availability, and site acquisition and construction costs. One case study shows a single family house with two auxiliary dwelling units (ADUs) behind it. Turning an under-used outbuilding or wing of a single family house into a small apartment could not only help fill the missing middle but also help offset property taxes for a retired homeowner hoping to age in place.

In my hometown the proposal for up to 160 new units specifies that the units will be rentals and that the project will include only one parking space per unit. Some neighbors have wondered what kind of people would rent rather than buy, and what kind of family would live in town with just one car. Parolek cites a Pew Research Study showing that people who traditionally rarely rented a home now are increasingly choosing to rent to avoid the hassles of ownership.

As for cars, Parolek notes that parking can cost the average renter $225 per month, according to one estimate. The average annual cost of owning a car is almost $10,000. The “missing middle housing” can be woven into existing walkable neighborhoods. Parolek recommends no more than one parking space per unit. I look at my “dense,” 50-unit-per-acre next-door neighbor. Seven units, but only six parking spaces. One unit has zero parking. And yet the units all keep selling and reselling, at steadily increasing prices. Who wouldn’t want to live next door to that?

Richard K. Rein, a writer and editor based in Princeton, New Jersey, is currently writing a biography of William H. Whyte, to be submitted later this year to – full disclosure – Island Press, the publisher of Parolek’s book.